Why it is so Difficult for the Netherlands to be Green?
Windmills cheese and clogs: probably the first three things that pop to mind when someone thinks about the Netherlands. Not without reason of course. Windmills, and also cheese and clogs, are part of our history and tradition. For centuries the Dutch have harnessed wind power to drain water from low-lying marsh and turn it into arable land. No fewer than ten thousand windmills could be found in the Netherlands in the nineteenth century. But we seem to be falling out of love with this part of our heritage. Wind turbines are expensive; “running on subsidies” as is often being said these days mainly by our right-wing politicians. The resistance against wind turbines serve an example for the lack of progress of the green economy in the Netherlands, especially compared to other EU countries. In times when in my country wind turbines are becoming icons of the past, in countries like Denmark, Germany and the UK, they are increasingly seen as symbols of a greener and better future.
“The green image of the Dutch is at odds with the reality”, according to The Economist recently. A report by environmental group Natuur & Milieu revealed the poor environmental record of the Netherlands. We are bringing up the rear in Europe regarding quality of air, surface water, soil and are heavily addicted to fossil fuels. Our CO2 emissions increased by 15% between 1990 and 2010 and only by buying offsets from third countries could we stay below our Kyoto emission target. Particulate matter in our air leads to a loss of about 155,000 years of life. The Dutch nitrogen monoxide and dioxide emissions are triple the EU average. It is for good reasons that some people have dubbed Holland “the drainage hole of Europe”.
But why do Dutch citizens not care about the environment while living in such an overpopulated and polluted country? It might have something to do with the poor state of the political debate in Holland. In another article by The Economist on why “climate scepticism is not just American”, the Netherlands are quoted as the country in which “the climate change debate functions in much the same way it does in America”. Geert Wilders´ Party for Freedom seems to get away with portraying climate change as a big mass delusion orchestrated by intellectuals, since most of the other big political parties are unwilling to counter his climate scepticism.
A second factor is the influence of the old industry on the Dutch government. A couple of years ago, Prime Minister Mark Rutte from the VVD (the liberals) launched the “Green Right” pamphlet, but nothing has been heard of it since. The Netherlands is home to one of the biggest oil companies in the world (Shell) and the Dutch liberals have always been quite responsive to their industry lobby. The policies proposed by the liberals therefore follow for a large part the line of reasoning of our large business organizations.
Then we have vice-prime minister Maxime Verhagen of CDA, the conservative Christian party, who should be sensitive to the call for “environmental stewardship”. Vice-prime minister Verhagen proclaimed in a speech given almost one year ago that the sustainability agenda has been “hijacked by the left who turned it into an activist ideology”. Verhagen’s mission was thus to bring the sustainability debate “back to earth”. For this purpose he appointed Jeroen van der Veer, former Shell CEO, as the figurehead of his “Topteam for Energy” that advices the government on energy policies. Not long hereafter, subsidies on offshore wind farms were scrapped. A big blow to the offshore in the Netherlands, even though our potential to produce energy at sea -with the North Sea at our border- is huge.
The voices of the “green” energy companies like Eneco are not being heard by the political parties governing my country. Neither does the Dutch government listen to the calls from other companies, like Philips or Unilever (no small players either). In order to stimulate innovation, a strong domestic market and a stronger regulatory role by the Dutch government is crucial they say. The current tendency to protect what we have, instead of what could be, is on the other hand hampering innovation and innovative companies.
So what do we have? Halfway through the twentieth century the Dutch discovered that we are sitting on big natural gas fields and we have become quite dependant on gas (revenues) every since. The Dutch government will for example receive around 14 billion Euros in gas revenues this year. However our natural gas stocks can only keep us going for perhaps a couple more decades, so business-as-usual is no smart strategy for much longer. The current Dutch government thinks differently and wants to exploit so-called unconventional (or shale) gas supplies, requiring the use of millions of water per frack as well as tons of harmful chemicals for very little gas in return. On top of that, our government wants to maintain the Netherlands as a portal for the rest of Europe, maintaining its large airport Schiphol and its biggest port of Europe, Rotterdam, with coinciding heavy industry at its river mouths.
So what could there be instead? Many research institutes and scientists agree that our competitive advantage lies for example in offshore wind, a field where we already have some experience and where we have a strong knowledge base. The bio-based economy is another growth sector where the Netherlands can take the lead, due to our unique combination of a strong chemical, agricultural and logistical sector.
In the EU it is quite clear that green policies and the creation of jobs go hand in hand. The Commission’s working paper states that job potential of the renewable energy sector in the EU is estimated at 3 million jobs by 2020 and the implementation of energy efficiency measures could lead to 2 million green jobs, for a large part in the construction sector which was hit hard by the economic crisis. In the Netherlands, unfortunately, this knowledge is not so public yet.
The Dutch governing parties have for too long listened to the dinosaurs of our society by following them on the same, unsustainable road while this pathway could lead us into another crisis by making some of the same mistakes as were made in the financial sector. Sometimes regulation is necessary to steer us away from taking a wrong turn. Sometimes we need politicians to avoid taking the easy road of denying the problems we face and rewarding the vested interests that there are. It is up to the Dutch Greens in the run-up to the national elections on September 12 to give another vision for Holland where we return to our historical affection for wind mills. A vision for a green Holland where people produce their own energy by putting solar panels on their roofs. An efficient Holland where we live in well-insulated houses so energy poverty is a thing of the past and energy bills are not going through the roofs. And a clean Holland, where we can breath freely without having to worry about reducing our life expectancy by inhaling dirty gases.